Loud, Quiet, Loud: At the Races in Dover

NASCAR isn't the juggernaut that it was a decade ago, or the outlaw regional entertainment it was a couple decades before that. What it is, though, is something of an open question.
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As I've been editing pieces for the next issue of The Classical Magazine, I've also been fighting my natural instinct to just put everything up on the site and start high-fiving people. I am giving in to it, here, by running Gregg Gethard's piece on attending a NASCAR weekend at Delaware's Dover International Speedway, and on NASCAR as a going concern in general, as a preview of what's in the issue. This will be there. Other pieces will be, too. Go ahead and get the app and get subscribed, if you haven't already. -- DR

“I love Kyle Busch. He’s such a badass.”

That was said to me by a woman in the parking lot outside the Dover International Speedway minutes after the conclusion of the NASCAR Nationwide Series event held there in mid-May. The woman who made the comment was in her early 20s and was from suburban Westchester County in New York state, as made clear by her Snooki sourpuss and thick-sliced Real Housewives accent.

“Kyle Busch is a total asshole.”

That was said to me during a yellow flag, one of the few times spectators can talk in anything but utter drowned-out futility during the actual race. The man who said this to me was a long-time racing fan, one so deeply into the sport that he’d rented headphones for $75 so that he could listen to pit row conversations. He was from a part of Pennsylvania – the vast middle James Carville was referring to when he called the state “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between” – where people sound more than a little bit like your average country music radio station disc jockey and have no fear of sitting in a sea of never ending steel bleacher seats shirtless under a beating, bleaching sun.

So: two people from two different walks of life, two parts of the United States that are geographically fairly proximate and culturally totally opposite, and two divergent but passionately held opinions on Kyle Busch. This is not necessarily a new thing: there’s a booming cottage industry in the cultivation and monetization of this type of opinion, and there have always been athletes like Busch who live along the line between polarizing antihero and unmitigated dickery.

Busch runs people into walls just to do it. He’s come close to throwing fists with rival drivers plenty of times. He’s never, not once, bitten his lip when it comes to talking about something related to NASCAR. So Busch is a bad-ass, or an asshole, or both. That and another character in a sport that exists, lucratively if more than a little strangely, at the crossroads of marketing, capitalism and the future – or lack thereof – of working class America.

Or maybe that’s too much. Maybe he’s just NASCAR.

***

NASCAR weekends are usually comprised of three races. The big races , the ones that your mother and mine know about, are held on Sunday afternoons and broadcast live on whatever corporate media behemoth won the rights during the last bidding round. (The current victors are Fox and TNT, but NBC just paid a gargantuan amount for the sport’s rights going forward.)  The sport’s stars – Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Busch and a few others – are rich and polished and probably at least faintly familiar to non-race fans. They do not so much have stylistic signatures as signature sponsors and variously telegenic caucasian faces, but they’re recognizable to anyone who’s paid any attention during the last portion of the average SportsCenter episode.

These drivers all race in the Sprint Cup series. In the first half of the season, racers earn points based upon how they finish, the number of laps they led in a single race and other variously arcane factors. In the second half of the season, they begin the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which is essentially NASCAR’s playoffs. The point figures reset for the top 12 drivers. Whoever wins at the end is crowned overall champion. That’s Sprint as in the phone company, naturally.

But those are Sundays. Which leaves Friday and Saturdays open.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck events usually kick off the weekend’s racing slate on Friday nights. Saturday afternoons are reserved for the Nationwide Series: races that go a shorter distance, driven in cars that have different specifications than those seen on Sunday. These races are more or less stock car racing’s minor leagues, although they also work something like the undercard in a boxing or wrestling event. The drivers competing are, for the most part, young faces – white, male ones, although you knew that – looking to make a name for themselves, or veterans trying to hold on in their profession/sport they love.

For the most part. There are no rules preventing Sprint Cup racers from also competing in the Camping World or Nationwide events. Racing fans remain divided on this rule. Many like it, for obvious and reasonable fan-reasons. Sunday racers getting on the track on Fridays and Saturdays is known as “Claim Jumping” – it’s a sort of reference to Nationwide’s insurance business – and it gives younger riders a chance to compete against some of the best in the world; many fans hate it for just that reason. Nationwide riders, for their part, almost unanimously say – perhaps with teeth clenched – that they want to race against the big boys as well, even though it almost always results in less prize money for them.

Kyle Busch is one of those big boys, and – and this can be seen as a bad-ass move bearing out his devotion to driving fast or an asshole move befitting a puffed-up bully – an enthusiastic claim jumper. Busch is a top-flight racer on the Sprint Cup series, currently sixth in this year’s standings, and a 26-time winner on the Sprint Cup circuit in his ten-year career; that’s good for sixth among active drivers, one spot ahead of his brother, Kurt.

Busch has never won the Sprint Cup – or, for that matter, its differently sponsored predecessors, the Winston Cup or the Nextel Cup – and, in fact, has failed to qualify for the Chase on a few occasions. However, he’s regarded by many racing diehards as one of the most talented drivers alive, and one who will likely win the Cup sooner rather than later. So add that to the rest: a bad-ass and/or an asshole, and also a genius at driving a car quickly in heavy, ambitious traffic.

Busch’s talent shines brightest and clearest in the Nationwide Series, where he still competes regularly. Busch has won 56 Nationwide races, more than any driver in history. He has also won six of the first 11 races of this season. With over twenty Nationwide races left, Busch will likely shatter the record of most Nationwide wins (11) in a single season. He set that record himself back in 2010. Mix in some Sprint Cup wins and Busch could wind up with one of the most dominant years ever seen in NASCAR history. That’s part of why everyone has an opinion, if not nearly all of the reason.

***

For all that can be said, good or not-so-good, about attending a NASCAR event, this much can definitely be said with some confidence: NASCAR fans are honest. They know that the cars they watch roar around these various oval are essentially made-for-TV billboards that move at speeds close to 200 MPH. Even the the websites that dispense tips about how to become a NASCAR driver talk about the importance of landing a sponsor and being media friendly. There are not a lot of illusions to be found, here, on or off the track.

NASCAR fans understand that stock car racing would not exist in its current form without corporate sponsorships. It costs racing teams upwards of $400,000 per week to operate – with money needed for repair and maintenance work, travel expenses and salaries for the pit crew, managers and drivers. No racing team in the world can survive on prize money alone. They need to slap advertisements all over cars in order to go on; being good enough to earn some extra money from television or print advertising helps, too.

And advertisers shell out huge sums of money to get advertisements on Sprint Cup cars. According to an article on NASCAR’s official website by the legendary team owner Roger Penske, the annual price to sponsor a Sprint Car is somewhere in the vicinity of $12-$15 million. Which is a lot of money, but which is maybe more notable because it generally winds up being worth it for the sponsors.

Dozens of academic articles and studies from market research companies show that brand marketing and NASCAR fans go hand-and-hand. Larry DeGaris, one of the most cited academics in the field of sports marketing, said in a 2005 study that 96% of die-hard NASCAR fans could identify Budweiser as the then-sponsor of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. without any assistance whatsoever. Some of this owes to the fact that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is kind of Budweiser incarnate – he also does advertisements for Wrangler, which works roughly as well – but much of it is due to the fact that NASCAR sponsorship just works.

Earnhardt’s number is jaw-dropping, but not by any stretch was it a fluke – percentages remained high for the top drivers throughout the sport. DeGaris conducted similar studies for every other major American sport. None, he said, even came close to the brand awareness imprinted on racing fans. Feel about this however you want, but the system clearly works and those millions of dollars are, in that regard, millions of dollars well spent. But it’s also a lot of money. This would seem to be the place to note that it costs a lot less to get a logo airbrushed onto the hood of a Nationwide series car.

And that’s why Kyle Busch still races in the junior-varsity. On Sundays, he races with a car with a goofy quasi-anthropomorphic M&M candy – the one with the exasperated Paul Giammati voice, not the weirdly sexualized female one – on its hood. On Saturdays, Busch drives a black car with the gaudy neon green Monster Energy Drink insignia, which seems a lot more fitting. He gets paid, and earns, for both. It’s a good deal for all involved, and all Busch has to do is be himself, and drive. Which seem like very similar things, in this case.

***

On the face of it, a weekend at Dover is a lot like what most non-fans might suppose a NASCAR race to be like, give or take the gray and faintly The Thing-ish mascot representing the course’s Monster Mile nickname.

That is, a lot of good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye, getting hammered with their buddies at an hour when effete urban types are still ordering brunch, and then watching a bunch of cars drive around for a few hours. The Dover website makes it clear that fans can bring whatever food or beer they want into the stadium, as long as the beer is in cans and the coolers in which they’re carried are of a reasonable size. It flat-out brags in both its print and video fan guide that cigarette smoking is allowed in the stands.

Starting on Friday, hundreds of RV’s sprout up in makeshift campgrounds along the strip mall highway near the racetrack, which is a few miles outside of Dover. The parking lot – free of charge and unpaved – itself is lousy with them. Most of the RVs flew flags of their favorite racer – many still with the famous 3 of the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. – and a certain percentage, inevitably if nauseatingly, flew the Confederate flag. A small ministry was also set up in a corner of the parking lot, hosted by a local Southern Baptist congregation. It provided church services on Sunday for any and all interested, a practice that happens at nearly every racetrack. It was, to my untrained eye and maybe also accurately, a vast and unmappable sea of trailers and humanity, an unimaginable number of to-be-emptied beer cans and various deeply held allegiances. And yet that wasn’t quite it.

And maybe sea isn’t right. In the no-man’s land between the parking lot-cum-campground and the monolithic steel stadium stood the state of NASCAR. Imagine a county fair, Anytown, U.S.A., inundated with Chevrolet propaganda, booths where you – yes, you – can purchase the official overpriced T-Shirts of your favorite driver, with the festival narrated by a hype man, complete with Warped Tour frosted-tips, doing his best to hype fans up before their entrance. There are stickers of Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes” pissing on various logos. For sale, and also on display.

It was, formidable as it was, either an ocean at ebb tide or a state in multiple recession. “These seats would have been almost completely full just a few years ago,” said the racing fan sitting behind me. “Look at how empty it is now.” It wasn’t that empty, but it was – for all those trailers and all those flags – a nation diminished.

The capacity at Dover International Speedway is in excess of 100,000. A rough eyeballing on Saturday revealed it to be about 40 percent full – which is still a lot of largely male (and shirtless) humanity, admittedly, and a notable amount of women who no doubt have considered attending a Kid Rock cruise. That’s a lot of people, but a lot fewer than just a few years ago.

This is true at NASCAR races throughout the country. Attendance figures have dropped precipitously since the advent of The Great Recession, so much so and so broadly that NASCAR no longer releases this data to the press. The excuse is that many NASCAR tracks are owned by publicly traded corporate entities, and that making attendance figures public could affect earnings guidance. There’s an element of ghoulish legalistic Great Recession satire, here – all these publicly traded entities and their prerogatives – that you can take or leave, but none of these public companies had a problem making attendance figures public when they were impacting earnings guidance reports in a positive manner.

And here’s the other predictable, predictably harsh bit: NASCAR, a sport that’s culturally and demographically and multiply linked to the Sun Belt fortunes that went bust with the bursting of the last decade’s bubble, has seen its fortunes decline alongside those of its fan base.

The economy of North Carolina, considered by most as the cradle of NASCAR, has doggie-paddled through the supposed and supposedly ongoing economic recovery, with over 140,000 more residents unemployed in April 2013 than were out of work ten years earlier. The usual bleak caveats – namely, that some unemployed are too defeated even to appear in the employment reports – apply. NASCAR is hurting because its fans are hurting.

But NASCAR is a business, and can’t wait for an eviscerated working class to recover. NASCAR’s new gambit is to market the sport to a new audience – one with less of a twang in its accent and more disposable income. The die-hards, the thinking goes, will be there until they die. There are new partners to court. And so NASCAR officials have embarked on a “five-year plan” – ironic, since the sport is so unabashedly capitalist and defiantly ‘Merican, and five-year plans traditionally are the domain of dictatorial command economy rulers – to change everything.

The planks in this plan are simple and strikingly familiar. NASCAR’s new roadmap is, at bottom, the same marketing plan that every big business in America now follows. It wants to make its drivers – that is, individual product brands – mainstream stars. It wants to increase its “digital and social media” profile, because of course it does. It wants to increase interactivity with its fans during race days – one of its biggest draws are the various opportunities fans have to go see cars in person and to meet and greet drivers and their teams. It seeks to increase its viewership amongst the standard “key 18-24 age demographic.” This is a strange and unique sport, and it’s after what every other sport – every other business or brand, period – is after. How disappointed you feel about this is up to you.

***

Naturally, if only because the demographics dictate it, NASCAR is also after a foothold in developing a multi-cultural audience. This part is not just the standard lip service executives babble about in earnings calls and press releases. It’s just good business, even if it’s not going to be easy with all those Stars and Bars aflutter in the parking lot.

The following is not a headline from The Onion:  NASCAR and Univision have co-produced a telenovela called "Arranque de Pasión, La Historia de Ela." The plot features a racer – Spanish-speakers and above-average context-inferers will not be surprised to learn that her name is Ela – who is a sort of Latina Danica Patrick. Her longtime relationship with another driver has frayed, thus sending her into the loving arms of his brother, a mechanic on the ex-lover’s team. You can imagine the reaction shots, the smoldering, the casual and high-hoping product placements.

One could argue –many already have – that NASCAR has already turned its back on its traditional, working class Southern fanbase, or at least back-burnered the diehards in pursuit of new and more affluent potential partners. New racetracks and events have popped up in places like greater Chicago, Phoenix and Las Vegas, which happens to be Kyle Busch’s hometown. Racetracks have closed and events have been pulled from legendary revenues like “The Rock” – located slightly south of Middle Of Nowhere, North Carolina – and Darlington, just outside struggling Florence, South Carolina.

NASCAR, in essence, wants more fans to consider Kyle Busch a bad-ass. Or an asshole. It wants fans to consider him, and it would maybe prefer those who see him as brash and cool to those who see him as a jerky Calvin pissing on a long legacy of something else.

***

Kyle Busch led for most of the race at Dover and looked certain for his next win of the season, until it became clear that he’d made a tactical error. Yellow flags are the great equalizer in stock car racing, as they essentially reset the race. Drivers head into pit row en masse for tire changes and the like. Busch had wanted all four of his tires replaced for the stretch run. His closest rivals called for only two.

The precious seconds of difference – and it is, astonishingly, only a matter of seconds – bumped Busch from the lead to ninth coming out of the pit. He immediately made his move to go forward, went too high on the steep bank at Dover and skidded into the wall.

A round of applause and high-fives went up when he did. It locked up his defeat, although his earlier brilliance and a scrappy comeback still allowed him to capture fifth.

To the dwindling amount of fans who pile in their RVs and head north from the regions of America that have long held stock car racing as something like a religion, Kyle Busch will always be an asshole. But both Busch and how he rides are winning, even if he hasn’t quite won it all yet. That may just make them hate him more.

It won’t change anything, because the race is the race. But it’s a good thing, because it will give those who still show up something to shout about during the cautions, when the cars are in the pit and everything at the track strangely, if briefly, quieter than usual.


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